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Culture

Greek Theatre’s ‘Offstage’ Tragedy Featured in New York Times

EPIDAURUS, Greece – Following the presentation of the National Theater of Greece’s production of Aeschylus’ The Persians, the first-ever livestream from the ancient theatre at Epidaurus, the New York Times featured an article by Niki Kitsantonis, titled “The Greek Tragedy Is Now Offstage.”

In the article, Kitsantonis wrote that the play, “the world’s oldest surviving dramatic work” was first performed in 472 BC and “the actors would have been wearing masks,” adding that “this time, it was the audience” wearing masks.

Part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, the livestreamed play “was hailed as theater’s return to the place where it all began after the coronavirus lockdown darkened stages across Greece,” Kitsantonis wrote, noting that “to abide by restrictions set by the health authorities, visitors wore masks to enter and leave the amphitheater, and ushers in plastic visors and surgical gloves enforced social distancing. The theater’s usual 10,000-seat capacity was capped at 4,500.”

Kitsantonis pointed out in the article that “even before the pandemic, Greece’s theaters were in trouble,” noting that the “years of austerity saw government spending on the arts slashed, with subsidies for the largest theaters cut in half, or withdrawn altogether for some smaller venues,” and “as a deep recession hammered the economy, tens of thousands of businesses closed down, leaving little prospect of support from the private sector.”

“Dozens of theaters closed; others survived only by cast members covering the costs of performances themselves” Kitsantonis wrote, adding that “as Greece started to emerge from its financial crisis, in 2018, state funding started trickling back; the major state-funded theaters edged up to three-quarters of their pre-crisis budgets, and the smaller theaters that survived recouped some of their losses,” and “then the pandemic came and threatens to wash all those gains away.”

In response to the first wave of COVID-19, all theatres were closed on March 12, and “since July 1, open-air venues have been allowed to resume, but only at half capacity,” the Times reported, adding that “the conditions under which indoor venues would be allowed to reopen have yet to be decided by the health authorities, according to Nicholas Yatromanolakis, the general secretary of the Greek Culture Ministry.”

“No one knows what will happen yet. We have to roll with the punches,” Yatromanolakis said, the Times reported.

“Even if closed theaters reopen in the fall, the social-distancing rules that they will most likely have to introduce will mean greatly reduced ticket sales — and state subsidies on their own are not enough to keep most organizations going,” Kitsantonis wrote, adding that “Greece has so far weathered the pandemic much better than many of its neighbors, recording about 4,300 cases and just over 200 deaths from the virus, but many in the industry worry that a second wave of the illness would mean that venues have to remain shuttered for even longer.”

National Theater Artistic Director Dimitris Lignadis, who directed The Persians at the festival, said in an interview that he “was bracing for losses,” the Times reported.

“I’m doing it to keep up appearances, to keep the theater alive,” Lignadis said of this summer’s reduced program, the Times reported.

Measures have been announced by the Greek government to help the arts in Greece, with 100 million euros (about $120 million) set aside for the sector, but only 4 million euro (about $4.72 million) was “pledged to theatres, a pittance in comparison with the funds made available by other European nations,” Kitsantonis wrote in the Times.

Dimitris Antoniadis, a former president of the Union of Greek Actors, said “state compensation for performers only helped those who were working when the lockdown began” but “when the virus struck, about 80 percent of Greek actors in the austerity-hit industry were unemployed,” the Times reported.

Antoniadis told the Times that “many had now sought work in cafes and hotels to make ends meet during the pandemic,” and “it’s not like the virus came along and ruined some sort of paradise. Things were already hard, now it’s hell.”

Theatres were encouraged by the Ministry of Culture to record plays during the lockdown “for paid digital distribution,” the Times reported, adding that the Ministry also planned to “help theaters present productions with English subtitles, in the hope of drawing in foreign visitors — though tourism, too, has been battered by the pandemic.”

“A program of more than 250 performances in archaeological sites around the country, organized by the ministry, will run through the summer,” Kitsantonis wrote in the Times.

“We tried to expand the safety net, to protect jobs and to promote Greek theater,” Yatromanolakis said, the Times reported, noting that “distributing aid to theaters has been complicated by poor record keeping, however,” since “there was no official record of theaters, or actors, in the country, and it was difficult to ascertain which claims were genuine.”

“A register is only now being compiled,” Yatromanolakis told the Times.

Lydia Koniordou, the actress who played Queen Atossa in The Persians and was Culture Minister from 2016-18, told the Times that “the chaotic state of the Greek arts sector has long been holding it back,” as “institutions frequently employed artists with contracts that offered little protection or without contracts at all,” and “this, along with widespread financial mismanagement, had turned Greece’s cultural sector into a ‘bombed-out landscape.’”

Koniordou said that “during her years as culture minister, she had managed to curb wasteful spending by state-funded theaters and secure an extra €3 million in annual subsidies for smaller venues, but … the arts were generally viewed as a luxury, and were not a priority,” the Times reported.

“Culture is seen as something decorative, like a vase of flowers. If you don’t have money, you won’t buy a vase of flowers. But culture is our society’s compass, our North Star. If we lose our compass, we lose our way,” Koniordou told the Times.

Philanthropic organizations and charitable foundations are offering some hope to theatres looking to “fill the gaps,” Kitsantonis wrote in the Times. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation continues its pandemic relief efforts with new grants and its ongoing support for the Greek National Opera, for example.

The Onassis Foundation, a nonprofit founded by the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, has also made “hundreds of grants since the beginning of the lockdown,” the Times reported, adding that “it also commissioned dozens of new video works from artists during the lockdown that are available to view on the foundation’s website.” Onassis Foundation Director of Culture Afroditi Panagiotakou told the Times, “The idea was to support artists while also creating an impression of an era.”

At the performance of The Persians, “many in the audience were hopeful that theater in Greece, a tradition stretching back thousands of years, would find a way through the crisis,” Kitsantonis wrote in the Times.

Vania Saroglou, a 36-year-old teacher, who “set her bag and program down in the empty seat next to her,” said, “It’s amazing to be back here, especially after that nightmare with the lockdown. Whatever happens, Greeks will always have this. It’s in our DNA,” the Times reported.

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